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Recent Movies: The Danish Girl; Carol; Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

January 25, 2016

The Danish Girl

Based on a true story:  In 1920s Copenhagen, Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) is a landscape artist and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) is a portrait artist. When a female model is late to pose for Gerda, she asks Einar to temporarily replace her, partly dressed in women’s clothes. This incident re-stimulates Einar’s early desires to live as a female.

It is also notable that  Einar’s transition to Lili Elbe is one of the first known transgender incidents in history.

I’m sure my fellow movie buffs can recall times when a film was universally acclaimed and we just didn’t see what any of the fuss is about. Sometimes, we even disliked the film. For me, the most glaring cases were probably “Lost in Translation” back in 2003 and “Life is Beautiful” in 1997.

“The Danish Girl” creates that rare situation in the opposite direction: a film that is universally rated as mediocre or disappointing; but one which I found superb. The naysayers at least agree that Redmayne and Vikander are great in their roles. More on that later.

I believe that director Tom Hooper (who helped raise “The King’s Speech” to such a high level) deserves great credit for elevating the mood in this film to one of intensity mixed with beauty. There is much risk in expressing true identity at a time when the term “transgender” did not even exist. The deeper understanding of artists, among others, is on display with kindness and compassion. The beauty of cities like Copenhagen, Paris, and Dresden (with exquisite set designs, cinematography, and music) all contribute to keep the aesthetics of this film at the highest level.

But it truly is the acting that makes this film as great as it is. Redmayne’s performance alone would have been adequate but Vikander’s contribution is more than that of a supporting role. As an emerging artist and as a woman whose marriage is changing in ways that could never have been equaled at that time, Vikander brings great depth to Gerda as her love and support are unyielding during a very difficult and unusual time.

Redmayne is truly sensational in this film. This is not a surprise considering his turn in last year’s “The Theory of Everything” for which he was rightly praised with multiple awards. In “Danish Girl”, his depth goes even further as he boldly and courageously exposes the sensitivity of a unique and misunderstood soul. From the time he first reacts to wearing women’s clothes, the movie is riveting as he easily conveys nuance in his facial expressions and takes great risks to be truthful and authentic.

As Charlize Theron did with “Monster”, Redmanyne’s sublime performance raises a fine film to an even greater level.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * * ½
OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT:   Lead Performance by Eddie Redmayne

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Carol

New York City, 1952:  Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) is a wealthy, middle-aged woman in the process of divorcing her husband who is resisting her divorce.  While Christmas shopping for her young daughter, she shares a mutual attraction with Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a young store clerk who aspires to be a photographer.

“Carol” has the right production values (cinematography, set design, music, and costumes) that help director Todd Haynes recreate a time period long gone.  The journey is beautiful in a mysterious way.

Blanchett is as great as always.  She is as suave as suave could possibly get and she can show the inner conflict of someone whose new relationship could jeopardize having equal custody to her daughter once the divorce proceedings begin.

Mara, in a subtle way, conveys the innocence of a young woman coming of age in a very unusual way.  I have no doubt of her talents but she was difficult to read at times; she could show depth but sometimes seemed too restrained, rarely changing her facial expression.  It’s hard to tell if this was the choice of Mara, Haynes, or both.

For much of the film, it seemed like the main characters were going through the motions but there could have been more chemistry between them even though repression and conformity were 1950s hallmarks.  (An aside: it seems this is the season for movies taking place in New York in the 1950s.  “Brooklyn” and “Bridge of Spies” are two other examples.)  Clearly, the benchmark for forbidden same-sex love stories is “Brokeback Mountain” (2005).  In that film, there was more evidence of tension building between the two lovers.  The separation anxiety was also more evident including the excitement of reuniting.  This is not to say that “Carol” must be similar but it could have used less restraint.

It is in the last half-hour that the movie really shines.  Blanchett is superb in a scene involving her husband and their lawyers.  And later, the film finishes at just the right point leaving only a tiny bit of ambiguity.  It left so much subtle emotion that I only wish the rest of the film had been as strong.

RATING:   * * *

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Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

Guggenheim (1898 – 1979), a famous art collector who contributed to the modern art movement beginning in the 1940s, is the subject of this American documentary.

This film includes recordings of an interview with Guggenheim shortly before her death.  As the tapes had been thought lost, they add heft to the film.  And the content itself is more than engaging.

Peggy is the niece of Solomon Guggenheim who founded the famous museum in New York.  The stories of her family background make for great drama by themselves, sadly including tragedies in her childhood as well as in middle-age.

With fabulous footage and interviews, this film follows its subject’s life and career at a fine pace.  They include that great era of Paris in the 1920s, WWII, and the post-war years in New York and later, Venice. Taking the viewer through art history lessons is a bonus.

The viewer also gets to vicariously enjoy watching the lives of the jet-setting rich and famous with all the indulgences and many incidents of sleeping around.  By the end, we feel internally richer getting to know a fascinating woman well ahead of her time.  A fine doc, indeed.

RATING:   * * *

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Upcoming film reviews:   The Big Short;  The Force Awakens;  The Hateful Eight;  Creed;  Anomalisa;  The Revenant;  45 Years

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